It is in political Zionism, the Zionism of Theodore Herzl, that we first find a clear expression of the need to reclaim the physical Jew. At the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, Herzl’s chief lieutenant, the Parisian physician, Max Nordau, made a speech in which he called for the need to develop what he called “muscle Judaism”. It was a subject to which he returned in subsequent years, and in so doing he contributed greatly to the idea of the development of the New Jew as a total transformation of the frightened Jew of the ghetto. In an article that he wrote just a couple of years after his initial presentation, he said the following:

If, unlike other peoples, we do not conceive of [physical] life as our highest possession, it is nevertheless very valuable to us and thus worthy of careful treatment. During long centuries we have not been able to give it such treatment…In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their carefree movements. In the dimness of sunless houses, our eyes began to blink shyly. The fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers…
At this point he developed his ideas for changing the situation:

Let us take up our oldest traditions. Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men…For no other people will gymnastics fulfill a more educational purpose than for us Jews. It shall straighten us in body and in character… Our new muscle Jews have not yet regained the heroism of our forefathers who in large numbers eagerly entered the sports arenas in order to take part in competition and to pit themselves against the highly trained Hellenistic athletes…
Nordau was not alone in his assessment. Herzl himself, in the same year that Nordau made his initial presentation, 1898, made his famous visit to Eretz Yisrael, and was most impressed by much of what he encountered in the new Zionist settlements and communities there. One of his most enduring memories in subsequent years was the effect that the visit to Rehovot had on him. There he encountered the young people of Rehovot who came out to greet him on their horses and put on a display of their equestrian expertise for him. The idea that these were Jews who were riding with the skill associated with other peoples such as Cossacks and Gypsies, moved him enormously and he gave full expression to his feelings in his diaries.

Political Zionism contributed greatly to the idea of the New Jew, the Jew who would overturn history and allow the Jews once again to take their rightful place, as a people, on the centre of the world’s stage. At the centre of the image of the New Jew was the reclamation and legitimate expression of physicality. The vehicle of that reclamation of the physical Jew would be the physical training of the Jewish body. And, as Nordau and others saw it, the key to that physical training would be sport and gymnastics. In that same article, Nordau mentioned a gymnastics club, the Bar Kochba club, which had been founded in Berlin in 1898, in response to his initial speech. With a typical oratorical flourish, Nordau said the following:

The desire of going back to a glorious past finds a strong expression in the name that the Jewish gymnastic club in Berlin has chosen for itself. Bar Kochba was a hero who refused to know defeat…Bar Kochba was the last embodiment in world history of a bellicose, militant Jewry. To evoke the name of Bar Kochba is an unmistakable sign of ambition. But ambition is well suited to gymnasts striving for perfection. …The members of the Bar Kochba club loudly and proudly affirm their Jewish loyalties. May the Jewish gymnastic club flourish and thrive and become an example to be imitated in all the centres of Jewish life.




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19 Jul 2005 / 12 Tamuz 5765 0